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Gophers' new Captains Breakfast unites alums with current players

Tom Sakal, left, captain of the 1967 Gophers football team, poses with Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Sakal spoke at the Captain's Breakfast, a new tradition where an alum addresses the team on game days. (Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics)1 / 3
Marion Barber Jr. with P.J. Fleck. Barber, who was a running back from 1977-80 and father to a trio of Gophers players, spoke before the home opener against Buffalo. Photo from Fleck's Twitter account.2 / 3
Tyrone Carter, left and P.J. Fleck. Carter, who won the Jim Thorpe award for the nation's best defensive back in 1999, spoke at a Captains Breakfast. Photo from Carter's Twitter account.3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Sakal fought back tears when speaking to the Gophers football team last Saturday, Sept. 30.

"I'm not an emotional person, but it really hit the core of me," said Sakal, the sole captain of the last Minnesota team to win a share of the Big Ten championship in 1967.

Sakal addressed the Gophers as part of the team's Captains Breakfast, the first invitation he had received from the program in the 50 years since he played linebacker for co-conference champions.

"It was wonderful," Sakal, 71, said this week from his home in Florida. "I enjoyed every minute of it."

It was part of new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck's budding tradition of asking significant alumni to speak to current players on game days. Players from four different decades, all of whom played in the NFL, have spoken to the team so far.

Sakal spoke before the Gophers' 31-24 loss to Maryland. His message: "Championships aren't won on Saturdays" but through hard work and teamwork the rest of the week.

Marion Barber Jr., a running back from 1977-80 and father to a trio of Gophers players, spoke before the home opener against Buffalo. Omar Douglas, a receiver from 1991-93 and father to current wideout Demetrius, lives in Portland, Ore., and addressed the team before the road game at Oregon State. Jay Carroll, a tight end from 1981-83 and father to Quinn, a top recruiting target, talked ahead of the Middle Tennessee State game.

"Ninety-nine percent has nothing to do with football, which I think is incredibly important for guys on the team," said quarterback Conor Rhoda, who said other alumni have addressed the team in his previous four years in the program. "It just brings life full circle, brings football experiences to those life experiences."

The impetus for the private chats center on Fleck's desire to connect alumni to the program in a positive setting.

"I don't want people to look at us like whatever had been good or bad," Fleck said. "I want them to look (and say), 'We were a part of that. We were a part of history. ... We want Minnesota to be successful.' "

It hasn't been uniformly smooth.

Jim Carter, a star fullback on the 1967 championship team, declined an invitation to be honored with teammates before the first quarter of the Maryland game. After forming ties with former coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys, he remains an outspoken critic of U President Eric Kaler's and athletics director Mark Coyle's leadership during the sexual misconduct scandal that led to 10 player suspensions and, ultimately, four expulsions.

"It would be hypocritical for me to support the university with the way they run things these days," Carter, captain of the 1969 Gophers team, said. "I quit buying my season tickets."

Fleck has mended the relationship with Tyrone Carter, who won the Jim Thorpe award for the nation's best defensive back in 1999. Last summer, Carter posted a video on Twitter that appeared to question Fleck's desire to recruit Carter's nephew Marquis Williams, a cornerback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the 2018 class.

The two met at Fleck's office in late September, emerging with a photo posted on Twitter of them both smiling and gripping an oar.

While NCAA rules prohibit Fleck from commenting on recruits, he repeatedly has said his overall goals are to secure early pledges from players who want to come to Minnesota and fit with his energetic style. His 2018 class already has 23 commitments, all joining from February to July.

In August, Williams gave an oral commitment to Pittsburgh.

Fleck also wants to keep legacy recruits in maroon and gold. His pursuit of Demetrius Douglas to join the Gophers' 2017 class began the fulfillment of that goal.

Marion Barber Jr. was impressed by Fleck's efforts to connect with him in May when he graduated with a Youth Studies degree 36 years after he left the U to play in the NFL. Fleck's staff made a video with old footage of Barber playing for the Gophers and a message of congratulations.

"How special is that?" Barber said. "You look at that, and he had only been on campus a few months, but just to have the desire to or even the thought to put something like that together for someone that he really hasn't even met. It really shows the kind of guy and the kind of character he has as a person."

A few weeks before the season, Barber was asked to speak to the team ahead of the season opener, a 17-7 victory over Buffalo.

"I addressed change," Barber said. "Change is difficult for even the oldest of us as people, let alone these young men who have gone through three staffs, the seniors in particular. I know sometimes when there is change, there is doubt. You've got to believe in Coach Fleck and his mission."

A handful of Gophers players have had classes with the eldest Barber, and Thomas, a sophomore, has been hearing his dad's message his whole life.

"It was pretty cool," Thomas said. "They love my dad, so it's always nice to hear their feedback about my dad."

Omar Douglas moved with his wife, Demetrius, and their two daughters from Wayzata to Portland a few years ago when he switched careers from General Mills to Nike. When the Gophers traveled to Corvallis, Ore., to play the Beavers, Omar was the perfect fit to speak at the Captains Breakfast.

He told players that accomplishments only come after focus and work.

"In a short four or five years, (players) will be on the other side of this and it's important to reinforce what your future may look like," Douglas said.

When Carroll shared his personal message about perseverance before the Gophers' 34-3 rout of Middle Tennessee, he was struck by the attentiveness of the players.

"I would love to take credit and say it was the magnificent presentation, but I know better," Carroll said. "They were so respectful, so attentive and so engaged with eye contact and head nods. ... These guys are so disciplined and are learning something so valuable."

Carroll's talk was timed to an unofficial recruiting visit for his son Quinn, an Edina offensive tackle widely considered the top-ranked player in Minnesota in the 2019 class.

Before a stint with the Vikings, Carroll played for the Gophers with Norries Wilson, the program's new director of player development, in 1983. Like Douglas, he had spoken to small groups of the team, but nothing as encompassing as the new Captains Breakfast.

"I've been gone 35 years, and I don't ever remember getting a call to do anything like that," Carroll said. "So for P.J. and Norries to reach out, I think it has been a great initiative. I was honored to be asked to come in and share for a few minutes."